This week is absolutely lowkey, time to digest last week, to sleep, to try to get enough sleep, to meditate before bedtime to try to get enough sleep, to appreciate being back in Singapore. Getting back to barre pilates every day, which is so addictive and feels so good, hard and right from the first session, where I, with relief, am reassured that I haven’t lost all of my newly gained strength, body control, balance and flexibility in the past three weeks away from the barre. Getting back to breakfasts, lunches, after-work-wine and dinners with my new lovely friends. To receiving a welcome home present in the shape of a bunch of pink carnations, a bottle of mineral water, a new towel and a sweet card lying on my bed as I get back from the airport. And yet another thoughtful batch of belated birthday gifts, from friends, an Aesop body lotion with lemon zest and small natural soap bars disguised as toffees from Bali, and from a colleague, a nifty objective for my phone camera! Getting back into a work routine at the office, from home (calls right before midnight and right before dawn) and from The Hive, where I spend Friday with a friend. I’ve come back from everything that I love in London and Denmark to everything that I have come to love in Singapore. Including the opportunity to go and unwind on an Indonesian island.
A Hop, Skip and a Ferry Ride. For two days, we’re going to do exactly what we feel like (as if that’s not what we do 24/7!). My friend picks me up in an Uber at 7:45 on Saturday morning; drops me off at 22:45 on Sunday evening. The cars take us to and from the Tanah Merah ferry terminal, from where we sail for an hour both ways, to and from the ferry terminal 5 minutes from our hotel on the island of Bintan. So hassle-free, cheap and perfect as a spontaneous weekend getaway when you live in Singapore.
Eco-Tourism. The known history of the island dates back to the 16th century, when it was a main trading port in Southeast Asia. On the ferry over, we read intriguing tales of piracy and power struggles, which seem so incoherent with the also advertised bright white beaches, rolling green hills and sleepy fishing villages, offering an educational and exciting glimpse into local culture. Before this weekend, all I ever heard about the island was how touristy it has become and that it’s mostly used as a company offsite destination. Luckily, that’s not the vibe we get at all.
Swiss-Belhotel Lagoi Bay. The seaside hotel opened just a few months ago, and the staff are clearly extremely proud of the polished, modern state of the light, bright and airy glass-and-steel construction. It’s a biiit sterile and lacking in charm, yet all in all it serves its purpose brilliantly: our room is comfy, the breakfast is all right and there’s an infinity pool on the roof, with a view of the beach just a splash of chlorinated water away.
Lagoi Bay. Pretty deserted bounty beach, turquoise water, open horizons. Ahhh… as soon as we’ve dropped off our bags and had a small breakfast (congee with condiments!) at the hotel, we run down among the palm trees framing the wide expanse of white sand and jump into the ocean. Splash around in the transparent salt water for a while, rubbing our legs against the smooth white floor and laughing euphorically. Take a moment to appreciate: it’s 10am on a normal Saturday in October; we’re immersed in the warm Indian ocean; gazing in across a beautiful bounty beach. Run back up and lie down in the warm sand to tan and read and chill for a few hours. Completely alone for the most part – a few locals do stroll by now and then, kids frolicking in the water, like us, and parents looking lovingly after them.
Inflatable Pizza. When, sometime in the afternoon, we need a refreshment, we go back up to the hotel and float around on big slices of plastic pizzas in the pool, taken back to the ’90s by the American pop soundtrack streaming down on us from somewhere above, drinking fresh strawberry and lime juice, still not worrying about a thing.
Sunset Beach Run. That phrase can stand alone.
Nirwana. After a vodka/soda/lime at the rooftop bar at dusk, a driver takes us to Nirwana Gardens, a large, fancy resort poking out to the south of the bay. For my next visit to the island, I’ll definitely consider staying here – and also checking out the beach club. We drive down long, winding roads, with road side lights attached to palm trees, and get to a kelong style seafood restaurant – the most romantic spot I’ve seen in a while: not tacky, not fancy, somewhere perfect in-between; a wooden pavilion on wooden pillars, with big holes with nets in the floor for pulling up the edible treasures of the day, an open kitchen in the middle, high-ceilinged and with gorgeous views of the ocean, and Singapore and Malaysia in the distance, and then a boardwalk leading from the far corner of the platform and out to a small bar built in the same style as the restaurant. We’re ecstatic, but in that calm, serene way that a whole day spent in sun and salt water will give you. Share a bottle of wine in the bar, followed by a steamed lobster and prawns sizzling in a claypot in the restaurant. In full moon light at that!
Complete Physical Exhaustion. Our driver picks us up just before midnight – we fall asleep the minute our heads hit the pillow, or, actually, just after watching an episode of our favourite tv-show on my laptop perched on a pillow between us.
Morning Swim. Up at 7am. Got the rooftop pool all to myself. Back and forth for an hour, meditatively. First in soft rain, which then ceases when I’m midway through my butterfly laps.
Breakfast. Back in the room at 8am, my friend and I get ready and go downstairs for fried eggs, fresh papaya and decent coffee, loading up for another day of doing exactly what our hearts desire.
Beach. Salt water. Sun. Paperbacks getting creased from wet fingers and sand. Spotting a big lizard in the bushes lining the beach. No other tourists than us. Sunday outing for locals – canoeing, jet skiing, picnicking (nasi goreng eaten from plastic plates with fingers), singing and playing on brightly coloured wooden musical instruments.
Roomservice Lunch. Eating chicken satay in bed, with the incessant tune of R Kelly believing that he can fly in the background – for some reason, this song is on loop when you turn on the aircon in the room, and as such it becomes the soundtrack of the weekend. Not bad.. just unexpected.
Spa. 60 minutes’ Thai massage followed by 30 minutes’ body scrub with soothing aloe vera. That can stand alone as well.
Tourist Tour. With legs and arms as soft as a baby’s and glowing from the beach tan, we get in the hotel driver’s car for a four-hour tour of a good chunk of the coastal area south of the bay before looping back up to the ferry terminal for our late ride home. Listening to local music coming from a cassette tape in the car (!), we drive along very primitive roads and see such contrasts to the resort areas – long stretches of palm trees and greenery, wild shrubs on red hills, swamps, mangroves, clusters of wooden and concrete houses, or huts rather, all so colourful but with a very unfinished look, some of them with nearly thrashed scooters and others with shining Land Rovers parked outside, people chilling in front yards with a content and peaceful look in their eyes above the mandatory cigarettes, colourful schools, fruit and veggie markets, convenience stores, temples, mosques…
Sebung Boardwalk. First stop is by the very long boardwalk leading from the beach in the sleepy village of Sebung and out between very delicate, rickety grey fishing huts high up on pillars, which poke up nakedly in the low tide. Cool kids on scooters are racing each other on the boardwalk as we stroll along it, smiling to the little girls hanging out on benches on the way, all of them with smartphones and selfie-sticks clutched in their hands. Only locals; we still see no other tourists. Groups of colourfully clad children walk around on the river floor collecting gong gong. Looking in towards land, we have a good view of the beach huts, washing hanging between trees, hens walking around poking in the seaweed, fishing dinghies resting in the sand. We soak up the view for a bit before driving on.
Holy Splendor. Stop at an impressively ornamented, sweet incense-filled, brightly red-painted hindu temple in another sleepy village, and by a beautiful green mosque on the top of a hill with a splendid view of a cemetery with rows and rows of colourful rectangular tombstones between the foot of the hill and the line of ocean that runs between us and the neighbouring island of Batam. Remarkably, both holy houses are in such a brilliant shape compared with the shacks in which people live.
Fresh Lobster! Last stop is at a kelong in Busung, a lot more primitive than yesterday, and I’m so glad we get to experience both. We’re the only guests in the big wooden constructions on pillars in the middle of the mangrove river with views of the occasional fishing boat floating past and the pale blue and grey huts below a row of palm trees on the opposite shore. The food is fresh, tasty and highly affordable – 60SGD for a whole lobster steamed with garlic and finely chopped greens, a plate of steamed sea snails (that we, admittedly, can’t bring ourselves to eat) and a plate of water spinach steamed with garlic and prawns. They show us the live lobster a few minutes before they serve it. The most delicious one I’ve ever had, I think. We’re so happy, chatting, laughing, enjoying the moment. When darkness starts to fall, the rain starts to fall softly on the tin roof, which is the only sound we hear except for the rhythmic metallic noise of the solitary motorboats, the singing prayer from a loudspeaker and a fish fighting for its life in a plastic bucket just below our table. My friend finally gets up and throws it out in the water – we wait excitedly, and, yes!; it swims away happily rather than turning up its stomach.
Invigorated. Getting on the ferry at 8:15pm, we feel totally filled with good energy after a smooth, very inspirational yet totally relaxed weekend, and coming back to my small island home is so much nicer, less emotional and less jet lagged on Sunday evening than at the beginning of the week. Smart move!